The Letter

It sometimes catches me off-guard when it turns out a favorite movie was adapted from a short story or novel. Many of my favorite writers had their books turned into film more frequently than I think (or knew, or remembered); and more films were based on books and short stories than people remember or think. I knew, for example, that Now Voyager was a novel before a film; so were Stella Dallas, Flamingo Road, Laura, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and so forth. I also know W. Somerset Maugham had written Of Human Bondage (the film of which made Bette Davis a star) and the short story “Rain” (filmed with first Gloria Swanson and remade with Joan Crawford). I’d never read Maugham, but I know of his work; it was only recently, however, that I discovered that one of my favorite Bette Davis films, The Letter, was a Maugham short story he himself adapted into a play. Leslie Crosbie is one of Davis’ best performances, opening on a Malaysian rubber plantation with the sound of gunshots, as a man staggers down the front steps of a bungalow-style plantation house, with Bette Davis grimly following, gun in hand, and when he collapses onto the ground, she stands over him and fires four more bullets into his prone body at her feet. It’s an incredible opening, and a remarkable scene for Davis to play. The determination, the anger, the you so deserve worse than this look on her face–yes, she earned an Oscar nomination for that scene alone.

And once I knew (or was reminded; I may have known at one time it was a Maugham story and simply forgotten), I had to read the story.

The_Letter_poster

Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog-trot and shouted to the passer-by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones. But inside the office of Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor it was pleasantly cool; it was dark after the dusty glitter of the street and agreeably quiet after its unceasing din. Mr. Joyce sat in his private room, at the table, with an electric fan turned full on him. He was leaning back, his elbows on the arms of the chair, with the tips of the outstretched fingers of one hand resting neatly against the tips of the outstretched fingers of the other. His gaze rested on the battered volumes of the Law Reports which stood on a long shelf in front of him. On the top of a cupboard were square boxes of japanned tin, on which were painted the names of various clients.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in.”

A Chinese clerk, very neat in his white ducks, opened it.

“Mr. Crosbie is here, sir.”

He spoke beautiful English, accenting each word with precision, and Mr. Joyce had often wondered at the extent of his vocabulary. Ong Chi Seng was a Cantonese, and he had studied law at Gray’s Inn. He was spending a year or two with Messrs. Ripley, Joyce and Naylor in order to prepare himself for practice on his own account. He was industrious, obliging, and of exemplary character.

“Show him in,” said Mr. Joyce.

He rose to shake hands with his visitor and asked him to sit down. The light fell on him as he did so. The face of Mr. Joyce remained in shadow. He was by nature a silent man, and now he looked at Robert Crosbie for quite a minute without speaking. Crosbie was a big fellow, well over six feet high, with broad shoulders, and muscular. He was a rubber-planter, hard with the constant exercise of walking over the estate, and with the tennis which was his relaxation when the day’s work was over. He was deeply sunburned. His hairy hands, his feet in clumsy boots were enormous, and Mr. Joyce found himself thinking that a blow of that great fist would easily kill the fragile Tamil. But there was no fierceness in his blue eyes; they were confiding and gentle; and his face, with its big, undistinguished features, was open, frank and honest. But at this moment it bore a look of deep distress. It was drawn and haggard.

“You look as though you hadn’t had much sleep the last night or two,” said Mr. Joyce.

“I haven’t.”

Mr. Joyce noticed now the old felt hat, with its broad double brim, which Crosbie had placed on the table; and then his eyes travelled to the khaki shorts he wore, showing his red hairy thighs, the tennis shirt open at the neck, without a tie, and the dirty khaki jacket with the ends of the sleeves turned up. He looked as though he had just come in from a long tramp among the rubber trees. Mr. Joyce gave a slight frown.

“You must pull yourself together, you know. You must keep your head.”

“Oh, I’m all right.”

“Have you seen your wife to-day?”

“No, I’m to see her this afternoon. You know, it is a damned shame that they should have arrested her.”

“I think they had to do that,” Mr. Joyce answered in his level, soft tone.

“I should have thought they’d have let her out on bail.”

“It’s a very serious charge.”

“It is damnable. She did what any decent woman would do in her place. Only, nine women out of ten wouldn’t have the pluck. Leslie’s the best woman in the world. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. Why, hang it all, man, I’ve been married to her for twelve years, do you think I don’t know her? God, if I’d got hold of the man I’d have wrung his neck, I’d have killed him without a moment’s hesitation. So would you.”

“My dear fellow, everybody’s on your side. No one has a good word to say for Hammond. We’re going to get her off. I don’t suppose either the assessors or the judge will go into court without having already made up their minds to bring in a verdict of not guilty.”

As you may have noted, Constant Reader, this story was written during a time when casual racism was not only accepted but was par for the course. Maugham wrote during the first half of the twentieth century primarily; “The Letter” was certainly set during the time of decline for the worldwide British Empire (“the sun never sets on the British empire”); an empire that was built on the backs of its enslaved and conquered peoples, and justified its abuses and colonialism and exploitation with the typical white supremacy. The Empire didn’t survive the second World War–the Japanese in particular shattered the Empire’s Asiatic pretensions–but all the worst of British racism and classism and misogyny is there on display in this story (this sentence: Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones–in particular), and really is terribly dated in that regard. The story is also problematic in that it also upholds the standard misogynist trope that a woman will easily and without qualm accuse a man of rape to cover up her own crimes. So, it’s easy to see how such a story could spring from the mind of a gay man in that time period; my gay brothers can make the worst misogynists, I’m ashamed to say, and written during a period when misogyny was so incredibly rampant…yes, I can see it.

The story is vastly different from the film. The film obviously centers Bette Davis; it’s one of her finer performances, and the character of Leslie Crosbie; the story itself is entirely told from the perspective of her attorney, Mr. Joyce. But the bottom line of the story and film are the same: Leslie Crosbie murdered Geoff Hammond; the question is why? Mrs. Crosbie’s story is that he showed up at her door late at night and tried to rape her, and she killed him in self-defense, protecting her honor. The only problem is that she fired four more bullets into his corpse when he was already dead, from close range; this doesn’t sound like self-defense. Mrs. Crosbie herself claims she doesn’t remember any of that; and given that she’s a white woman, her story is she was defending her honor against a rapist, and the victim had taken up with a Chinese woman and was no longer received by honorable people (oh, the racism!), Mr. Joyce has no doubt that Mrs. Crosbie will neither hang nor go to jail; popular opinion in the ruling class is heavily on her side. But it turns out there’s a letter in existence, in her handwriting; begging Geoff Hammond to come see her at her home while her husband was away. Leslie explains this away quickly; in the hubbub of the shooting and its aftermath, she’d quite forgotten she’d invited him over to help her buy a gun as a gift for her husband, and once she hadn’t told the police, and remembered, she couldn’t tell them without making herself look bad. The Chinese woman Hammond was sleeping with has the letter; and wants money for it. Mr. Joyce explains to Mr. Crosbie…who comes up with the money, and then bitterly says to Me. Joyce: “the reason I was away was because I had gone to buy myself a new gun.”

Leslie had lied about her reasons for inviting Hammond over; what else has she lied about? But once the letter has been destroyed, and the jury sets her free–Mr. Joyce asks her one more question–and Leslie explains her truth: she’d been having an affair for years with Hammond, but the Chinese woman–whom he had loved when he was younger–had come back to his life and he no longer wanted anything to do with Leslie. Leslie was furious–bad enough to be thrown over, but for a Chinese woman? She deliberately invited him over that night; he told her he hated her and wanted nothing to do with him, and to her–this justified not only killing him, but her desire to get away with murdering her lover…and, because of racism and misogyny and class, she does.

It was an interesting–if dated–read, and while I winced away from the horrific racism (much worse than the misogyny of how courts always treated upper crust white ladies with such gentility, allowing them to get away with their crimes, and even cheering lustily their acquittals), I’m glad I read the story. I’ll probably read more of Maugham–I’d read Of Human Bondage when I was a teenager and hated it; I should probably reread it through the lens of Waugham’s homosexuality and how that main character’s relationship with toxic Mildred was undoubtedly shaped by his own denial of his sexuality; I’d probably enjoy that more now–and most definitely want to read “Rain”, to see how Sadie Thompson fares in her creator’s words, as well as to see how misogynistic Maugham was in creating her…it seems to me, in the works of his I’ve read, that his female characters were a lot darker and definitely more noir, than I might have thought before.

It might be interesting to retell “The Letter” entirely from Leslie’s point of view. Hmm, now there’s a thought.

I’d Better Off (In a Pine Box)

I love Patricia Highsmith, and one of the great joys of the last twenty years or so in my reading life has been slowly working my way through her canon.

Is there anything more fun and exciting than discovering a new writer whose work you enjoy? I think not! And it’s always fun to start working your way through their canon. I’m not even remotely close to being finished reading Highsmith; I’ve been enjoying my occasional forays into her work, and if you’ve not read her short stories….well, you’re really missing out. Her short stories are just as quirky and dark and pessimistic as her novels; although I’m really not so certain that I should use the pessimistic label with Highsmith. From everything I’ve read about her, she was a terribly unpleasant person with a cynical world view and a not particularly high opinion of her fellow human beings; although I think I can honestly say right there with you, Patricia! most of the time. Highsmith’s dark, cynical view of the world and her fellow human beings is partly what makes her books so terrific, so amazing, so suspenseful and so entertaining. I think the first of hers that I read was Strangers on a Train, which was a Hitchcock film I’d always loved; imagine my surprise to discover that it was based on a novel (as so many old films were; not many people knew, for example, that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was also a novel first, and it’s actually quite a good novel, at that). The book was amazing (and I should probably reread it as well), and I became aware of The Talented Mr. Ripley when the Anthony Minghella film version, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow, was released. The same author as Strangers on a Train?

I was so in. I actually read the book before I saw the film–which I think we rented, or watched when it made its way to HBO–which I also really enjoyed; Matt Damon did a great job as Ripley. But as more time went by my memories of the novel became supplanted by memories of the film–and as I knew there were differences between the two, I always meant to get back to the book but never did. I also never read the other books in the so-called Ripleyad; I never saw any point. I thought the first novel stood perfectly well on its own with its self-contained story and I worried that reading the others might spoil the first. There are five novels about Tom Ripley in total; written over the course of twenty six years, from 1955 to 1991. (There’s a lovely but expensive boxed set of them available; I may treat myself to that for my birthday, but whether I do or not remains to be seen.)

Over the past few years (probably a decade, I literally have no concept of time anymore) I’ve read some other Highsmith novels; The Blunderer and The Cry of the Owl, neither of which are as well known as the Ripley books or Strangers on a Train, which is a pity; both are truly fantastic–I particularly love the way she flips the narrative in The Cry of the Owl and turns it into something completely different from what the reader is expecting at the beginning; it’s absolutely genius, and mandatory reading for anyone who wants to write suspense novels, frankly.

But I wanted to reread Ripley, and possibly even go on to the other four books in the Ripley series, primarily because I am now rereading some of these older works with an eye to how male sexuality is presented; Ripley  was published during the highly repressive 1950’s, which was a horrible decade in which to have an alternate sexuality as well as to write about them; often they were coded. (I also want to reread Strangers on a Train for that same reason) When the Minghella film was released, there was a lot of talk about Ripley’s sexuality and its possible repression; there’s probably a similarity there between it and A Separate Peace; books in which I recognized something when I read them about male relationships, friendship, and intimacy that resonated with me. And I also realized, as I said earlier, that my memories of the book had become blurred by my memories of the film–which I also want to watch again; I can never forget that image of Matt Damon’s so-pale-it-almost-glowed skin on the beach in his yellow bikini when he awkwardly meets the Jude Law/Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed characters, and I wanted to reread that scene again in particular, to see how Highsmith handled it.

the talented mr. ripley

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eying him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.

At the corner Tom leaned forward and trotted across Fifth Avenue. There was Raoul’s. Should he take a chance and go in for another drink? Tempt fate and all that? Or should he beat it over to Park Avenue and try losing him a few dark doorways? He went into Raoul’s.

Automatically, as he strolled to an empty space at the bar,  he looked around to see if there was anyone he knew. There was the big man with the red hair, whose name he always forgot, sitting at a table with a blonde girl. The red-haired man waved a hand, and Tom’s hand went up limply in response. He slid one leg over a stool and faced the door challengingly, yet with a flagrant casualness.

“Gin and tonic, please,” he said to the barman.

The book opens differently than the Minghella film; which immediately changes the dynamic of who Tom Ripley is. In the film, Dickie Greenleaf’s spots Tom performing at a high society party with a music combo; he’s wearing a jacket that identifies him as an Ivy League alum–so Mr. Greenleaf, seeing that he’s about the same age as his son, thinks Tom might know Dickie and be amenable to an expenses-paid trip to Italy to retrieve him; only later do we learn he’d borrowed the jacket and probably doesn’t know Dickie at all.

As you can see from the above, Highsmith opens with suspense. Someone is following Tom, and it’s making him nervous–why? And why would someone be following him? We soon find out that he’s nervous because he’s been pulling a tax scam; he’s been calling random people, pretending he’s from the IRS and telling them they need to send more money because they didn’t pay enough taxes; it’s just for fun, as the checks aren’t made it out to him and he can do nothing with them. This is our first anticipation, as readers, that Our Hero may not exactly be your traditional-style suspense hero. But it’s only Mr. Greenleaf, not a treasury agent, and Mr. Greenleaf explains his situation to Tom–wanting Dickie to come home, as his mother is dying of leukemia and Dickie needs to get it together, give up his Bohemian life as a painter in Italy and come back to the US to take up his rightful place in the family business.

Soon Tom is on his way to Italy, funded by the Greenleafs, and tasked with bringing the recalcitrant heir home. He does find Dickie on the beach in Mongibello, and has to somehow make his acquaintance–and he doesn’t have a swimsuit:

He hadn’t brought a bathing suit with him, and he’d certainly have to have one here. Tom went into one of the little shops near the post office that had shirts and bathing shorts in its tiny front window, and after trying on several pairs of shorts that did not fit him, or at least not adequately enough to serve as a bathing suit, he bought a black-and-yellow thing hardly bigger than a G-string.

ripley

In the film, the awkwardness of the scene–and Tom in the bathing suit (which, in this case, is a lot more than a G-string; but then again, Tom has buried a lot of shame deep inside himself, and not just about his sexuality) he is clearly uncomfortable wearing, as well as the pasty whiteness of his skin amongst all the tan bodies on the beach, instantly induces sympathy for him–and in the book, it’s much the same. Highsmith takes us into Tom’s mind, in a tight third person point of view, so that we know what he is thinking and what he is feeling–but Highsmith is such a master writer, so good at making we the reader identify with Tom…that we soon forget that she is also dropping little hints along the way about just who he is. He is often refreshingly honest–he is very quick to tell people that he is good at forgery (he is) and mimicking other people (again, he is) and freely admits to many not quite moral talents; the great irony is that Tom has learned that you can quite often tell the absolute truth to people and they won’t believe you. He’s charming in his way, because he has learned that to get what he wants out of life, he has to be. Soon he is quite obsessive about Dickie–and disliking Marge, to the point of hating her for never letting him be alone with Dickie.

And this exchange:

“Marge and I are fine,” Dickie snapped in a way that shut Tom out from them. “Another thing I want to say, but clearly,” he said, looking at Tom, “I’m not queer. I don’t know if you have the idea that I am or not.”

“Queer?” Tom smiled faintly. “I never thought you were queer.”

Dickie started to say something else, and didn’t. He straightened up, the rubs showing in his dark chest. “Well, Marge thinks you are.”

Ah, some self-loathing a teenaged Greg can certainly identify with. Deny, deny, deny.

I loved the book even more than I did on the first read, and perhaps there’s a much longer, more in-depth piece I could write about this book (I certainly tagged a lot of pages as I read), but I am now interested in reading the rest of the Ripleyad; to see how Tom comes out–he certainly wound up ahead of the game at the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley, having lied, forged, stolen, and killed his way to get there.

And I do want to watch the film again–it’s on Netflix. Maybe something to watch while on the treadmill at the gym? Perhaps.